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American Forces Press Service

Mattis Explains Challenges in Syrian Situation

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 6, 2012 – As al-Qaida takes advantage of the unrest in Syria, Iran is working desperately to keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in power to support its own agenda, the U.S. Central Command commander told Congress today.

“The longer this goes on, the more potential there is for al-Qaida and for basically a full-scale civil war,” Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis told the Senate Armed Services.

Mattis noted signs of al-Qaida’s role in the Syrian opposition, particularly in carrying out “rather spectacular [improvised explosive device] attacks.”

Meanwhile, Iran has flown in weapons and experts in what Mattis called “a full-throated effort … to keep Assad there and oppressing his own people.”

“They’re providing the kind of weapons that are being used right now to suppress the opposition,” he said. This includes eavesdropping capability to identify opposition networks and “experts in oppressing.”

“They’re pretty well schooled. They know how to oppress their own people in Tehran,” Mattis said. “They’ve flown them into Damascus to help Assad do the same thing.”

Mattis noted that the fall of Assad’s regime also would be a huge blow to Iran. “It’ll be the biggest strategic setback for Iran in 20 years when Assad falls,” he told the Senate panel.

The general made clear that the question is a matter of “not if, but when he is going to go.”

Mattis said it’s hard to say how long Assad will stay in power if current conditions persist with no external intervention. “He’s going to be there for some time because I think he will continue to employ heavier and heavier weapons on his people,” he said. “I think it will get worse before it gets better.”

Assad is gaining physical momentum on the battlefield and “clearly achieving what he wants to achieve,” he said.

But at the same time, “he’s creating more enemies,” Mattis said, fueling international pressure against him.

Asked directly by a senator, the general declined to discuss in the open hearing whether the White House had directed him to prepare contingency plans to assist the Syrian opposition.

He acknowledged, however, that an international effort like the one that helped Libyan rebels bring down Muammar Ghaddafi’s regime would be much more challenging in Syria.

In addition to Iran’s support, the Russians have provided “very advanced integrated air defense capabilities – missiles, radars that sort of thing – that would make imposition of any no-fly zone challenging if we were to go in that direction,” he said.

Mattis and Navy Adm. William H. McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, agreed on the possible unintended consequences of providing arms to the rebels.

“I think we’d have to do our best to determine who we’re providing the arms to and follow the physician’s oath of ‘First do no harm’ to make certain what we’re doing is actually going to reduce the scale of violence, ultimately,” Mattis said.

“I think it’s always prudent to find out who your allies are and who your enemy is,” agreed McRaven.

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